This deal could either mean very little or quite a bit for higher ed, depending on how committed Microsoft is to education. Barnes & Noble has 641 college bookstores. Someday soon these bookstores will stop selling dead tree textbooks. Every book, article and textbook on your syllabus will be digital.
How will the college bookstore survive when students no longer need to visit to buy (or sell back) new or used books? Maybe they will transform into sellers of cappuccinos, logo sweatshirts, and other university branded tchotchkes - although this future is almost too depressing to contemplate.
What Microsoft could decide to do would be to double down on its $1.7 billion investment in the Nook division and use the Nook and all those B&N college bookstores to build out an educational ecosystem. This would undoubtedly involve taking an equity stake in the parent B&N company, and then working with the bookseller to turn the B&N college bookstores into Microsoft / Nook education solutions centers.
The Nook investment could be a first step that will enable Microsoft to think seriously about how its products and services could compete with Apple and Amazon to deliver services, hardware and content directly to students.
Some missing pieces would need to be filled in. The first thing Microsoft should do is purchase a coursepack company. XanEdu and Study.net would be the top contenders, although maybe others should be looked at. A coursepack company has expertise in clearing permissions and delivering articles and book chapters for classes. Coursepacks, like everything else, are migrating away from paper and towards digital - and the Nook could be a terrific platform for this service.
Next Microsoft should purchase a digital textbook company. Inkling seems like the best bet - as they have some great buzz and are gaining investment and market traction. A Windows powered Nook will be coming, and a company like Inkling would help ensure cutting edge design as well as content for the device.
With the B&N deal Microsoft has an opportunity to build strong relationships with students, again through the B&N bookstores and the Microsoft powered devices. Microsoft could do something different than the Apple Store by helping to create whatever comes next in the college bookstore. This new college bookstore might be a technology, device, and content center - and it might offer ultrabooks, tablets, and tech support alongside paper books (although not the paper textbooks) and cappuccinos.
It will be interesting if Microsoft understands and seizes this opportunity, or instead ignores the B&N bookstores and limits it Nook investment to providing software for e-readers.